Esper Legends is the antidote to the obsession of Standard (Grixis Midrange) and holds its own against the metagame at large as well. In the first round of Cycle 2 Regional Championships, it put two out of seven pilots into the Top 8 between the ANZ and SEA finals and was the second-most played deck at the Japanese/South Korean Finals.
I personally piloted it to a second-place finish in the ANZ Cycle 2 Finals last weekend. In this guide, I’ll cover everything you need to get started with Standard’s Esper Legends deck.
Why Play Esper Legends?
Esper Legends is a proactive deck that leverages Plaza of Heroes to cast a plethora of overpowered creatures that it’s selected to synergize with each other while disrupting both the opponent’s game plan and any attempt they might try to stem the bleeding as you swing into their underdeveloped board.
Not a true, pure aggro deck, Legends takes elements from hate bears (see: Thalia, Dennick) and tempo strategies (see: Ertai, Otawara) to slow down opponents and protect against knockout haymakers (see: Skrelv, Hermit). And it just so happens to be the best deck in Standard at utilizing Sheoldred on offense AND defense.
How the Deck Works
Your ideal start is Skrelv on turn one, Thalia on turn two, and Raffine on turn three. This start demands interaction from your opponent or you’ll quickly run away with the game. And even then, their removal must align against your threats perfectly or it still might not be enough. The balance of the deck enabling curving out is the most important, and during deck construction, sideboarding, and mulliganing, always think about the curve that you want to present.
The deck is very much a front-foot deck, and playing from the back foot is an awkward experience, with a large number of your cards geared towards turning things sideways. This can mean that you have to leverage your cards in awkward ways when playing against an aggro opponent, but don’t be afraid to throw low-value creatures away in these matchups to preserve your life total, enabling you to get to Sheoldred which often wins games by itself.
This means having a two-drop in your opening hand is one of the most important things to look for, in all matchups. Thalia is your best option in general, as the format has a lot of very impactful non-creature spells, and first strike is a form of evasion that lets you attack into most defenses, and combines well with Raffine, Gix, and Eiganjo. Your other two drops are generally less impactful, but all fulfill a role in certain matchups while maintaining a density on your curve.
When evaluating a hand, always consider how the cards will play together. For example, Harbin works great with Gix, but Dennick and Raven Man do not. And Toluz really needs channel lands or Raffine as well to meet its potential.
The deck does not have a large amount of traditional card advantage, however it has a couple of less overt advantages that should be kept in mind when piloting. The elephant in the room is Raffine, which obviously improves the overall quality of the cards you have relative to your opponent, by virtue of card selection. But the other leverage to consider is that any cards not played when the game ends haven’t impacted proceedings, so you can create artificial card advantage by killing your opponent before they’ve had time to utilize their tools.
The only true bad matchup is the new kid on the block, Selesneya Toxic, however, the sideboard here should help. As far as the current “top” deck (or at least the deck with the highest metagame share), Grixis really needs Cut Down and Sheoldred to get the upper hand over you. Not much can be done about a well-timed Cut Down (you can’t not play your twos on turn two), but always try to keep in mind what you’re playing against and what your opponent might do in response.
Dennick, for example, is an excellent play if there’s a chance your opponent might be looking to Corpse Appraiser the following turn. Be mindful that you might not see the impact of your decisions in these situations because your opponent might not play that Appraiser into Dennick, or the Fable into Hermit, but these cards can have large hidden (to you at least) effects on the game.
Given your game plan is more or less centered around Raffine, Sheoldred is the single card that provides the largest thorn in your side. This means being stingy with your answers in other situations, and Go for the Throat and Ertai should be held in reserve for the Apocalypse herself if she could show up in the matchup. Your own Sheoldred is also an answer to an opposing Sheoldred, as the triggers cancel out, but you must keep in mind the ordering of triggers. Active player, then non-active player on the stack. This particularly matters when resolving alpha strikes with Raffine. If it’s your turn, all your triggers will go on the stack first, followed by your opponents, which means you will take two damage for every card drawn (from their triggers) before you then gain that life back (from yours). So, so you can’t attack with say five creatures on 10 life in this situation as you’ll lose all 10 life before your own Sheoldred triggers resolve. This also works in reverse on your opponent’s turn, though and can you let you sneak the last two points of damage through.
Pain lands hurt, but we use the sideboard to shore up the aggro matchup. The fact that they are always untapped with our strong desire to curve out makes them our best lands (after Plaza).
Ao, Shelly, and Gix are all double pips, so Sanctum is our best slow land, but we can’t go with too many slow lands generally, because curving in the early turns is so important. As bad as it is to not curve out, the mana is an issue in this deck. One Raffine’s Tower is a compromise. This could/should maybe be 0 copies, however, Gix and high-impact sideboard cards mean helping cast these hungry spells on time is a balancing act.
Six fast lands often feels like too many with wanting to hit four and five drops on curve, as well as Plaza increasing mana hungriness late game as well. So five is as many as I’m willing to do.
Channel lands allow you to play so many lands while still having utility, and with how often they cost one to channel (and the synergy with Toluz), they are a very strong flexible addition to the deck.
I find that even with two copies of the same legendary land I get stung more often than I’d like, and so I’m not willing to go up to three of any one channel land. Eiganjo is best against aggro, Takenuma is best against midrange, and Otawara is best all around, however blue is the color we need least, so it, unfortunately, loses out here. If you were trying to fit more copies of the channel lands in, I would advise cutting spells, not lands, to make room.
Skrelv is at its best against midrange decks, specifically Grixis and Mono-White. They will likely kill your first Skrelv, so drawing two is normally okay, and you can always can pitch excess copies to Raffine. Drawing one late isn’t the worst either, because even though your opponent is likely out of spot removal, they can just make something unblockable to break a board stall, and that’s not unreasonable. Of course, Skrelv is obviously bad on an empty board late in the game. Some people advocate for three copies, however, Grixis and Mono-White being such large metagame players leads me to strongly advocate for four.
Thalia is the best card in the deck (and I would suggest potentially in the format). She hurts so many archetypes at the moment and is also good on defense against the aggro decks. Four copies, enough said.
Raffine is the (second) best card in the deck, and the reason to play Esper. Auto four-of.
Sheoldred wins the game on its own, synergizes well with the rest of the deck, and can sometimes claw you back into the game when you’re behind. The only reason to not play four is the legend rule and not wanting to be too top-heavy. If Sheoldred is good in your meta, I can see playing the fourth over an Ao or an Ertai, however, in my experience, I’m quite happy with three.
Dennick’s lifelink helps offset the pain lands, has value in the graveyard, and stops random reanimation cards. Four is a lot, but with Atraxa and aggro lurking and waiting to be ignored by the metagame, don’t leave home without them. I think you want four in the 75, and I don’t really wanna put any copies in the board.
Ertai deals with opposing Shellys, and also once you’ve developed a board state is good to sit on to stop wraths and blowouts. Use sparingly, as it’s really only a tempo play, don’t just fire it off willy-nilly unless it directly wins you the game or deals with a game-ending threat from the opponent. Two copies here lets you reliably find a copy with Raffine without being stuck with too many.
Ao both demands an answer but also a lot of the answers aren’t great against it. I only play two in the main to spec against midrange, otherwise, it would be one for curve considerations.
The Raven Man can absolutely run away with the game but isn’t exactly a clean fit with the aggro plan. The synergy with Raffine is beautiful, but other times he can be hard to fully utilize, and the body is very fragile.
Malevolent Hermit is a personal pick. It’s good in the graveyard and makes wraths and The Wandering Emperor awkward, while still maintaining a high density of two drops the deck desperately wants to curve out with. This helps the disruption plan and is excellent at holding the advantage. Non-legendary means you can play two at a time.
Harbin kills people surprisingly quickly by itself, but don’t be fooled by the text on it, there are no soldiers to buddy up with here, this is a 3/2 flyer for two that you want to play as early as possible, rather than spare to get the anthem effect.
Gix is the deck’s true card advantage. Almost every card we’ve talked about already has some way of working with it (flying etc.). Three is too many as it’s actually the hardest spell to cast on curve, but you only really want to play it if you’re getting a draw immediately from it. So use other cards first to create a board state where it’ll trigger straight away.
Toluz is great early into no untapped mana, particularly with the channel lands and Raffine. However, the conductor doesn’t do much late and needs help to be effective. But it trades well and has sneaky unblockable since your opponent won’t want to refill your hand.
Shelly is a problem for this deck, but Go for the Throat also deals with other roadblocks so your curve out can keep turning sideways.
|Ludevic, Necrogenius||Doesn’t do a lot when you play it, and sorcery speed five-mana activation means it can be hard to find a window to activate|
|Tenacious Underdog||The world’s moved on, you should too|
|Razorlash Transmogrant||Better than Underdog, and a reasonable choice, however double black to activate is restrictive|
|Geist of St. Traft Impersonator (Dorothea, Vengeful Victim)||The deck suffers without enough true card advantage as it is, and isn’t all in enough to want this|
|Unctus, Grand Metatect||I don’t understand why people are putting this in their decks with so many other good 3’s to choose from|
|Loran of the Third Path||Skrelv, blood tokens, Fable, Wedding Announcement, Ossification, Bankbuster, Steel Seraph, you get the picture. Also combo’s delightfully with Shelly. So you might be confused why Loran is relegated to the sideboard. The body and activated ability don’t pair particularly well into the format at the moment, and despite how it looks on the label, it is a trap to bring this in to deal with Fable, as your other three drops are all more impactful in those matchups.|
|Adeline, Resplendent Cathar||Very strong in the deck, giving extra Raffine triggers, and being a massive beater when you have a large board… which you’re probably winning anyway in that situation. Too many threes in the deck, and this loses out to Toluz because of Toluz’s synergy and how good a Toluz is against Grixis if it sticks. Also bad against Grixis|
|Ratadrabik of Urborg||Very good card, but worse than Ao into the grindy decks, doesn’t provide the flexibility of Ertai, and doesn’t win the game by itself like Shelly|
There are a lot of variations within archetypes in this format, so you need to be really mindful of what cards mean which variations, and be prepared to be flexible. Here’s my sideboarding strategy for some of the most common matchups in Standard right now.
Standard Esper Legends Sideboard Strategy
Grixis/Rakdos Based Midrange
Extra changes vs. Atraxa Variants
Spell Pierce trades up in mana and stops Brotherhood’s End, random removal, Fable, and Invoke, while still letting you develop your game plan (play threats, swing). Kaito diversifies your threats as they board in a lot of removal, so if they spend all their time dealing with threats and not developing their own board, Kaito just gets to sit there ticking up. With Kaito, be mindful of Brotherhood’s End and try to keep your loyalty high.
Harbin and Raven Man aren’t impactful enough (suit game one well, but not post-board). Skrelv is one of your best cards in the matchup, but drawing it late is bad, and it gets caught by the Brotherhood’s End and the extra Cut Downs that normally come in. Ertai is only really good if you’re killing them the turn after you play it, so I don’t like leaning on it too much.
Against reanimator, it’s important to have answers for both the reanimation spell, but also hard-cast Atraxa. You’re also happy to counter Shelly here.
|Disdainful Stroke||Go for the Throat|
|Disdainful Stroke||Go for the Throat|
A good matchup, where exile-based removal makes Toluz weak, and the value of Go for the Throat is highly variable based on the presence of flying creatures (Sanctuary Warden, Phyrexian Vindicator, Serra Paragon). If these are present, leave the Go for the Throats in and trim an extra Skrelv plus your Harbin.
Skrelv once again gets caught up in wrath effects, despite being incredibly strong on both offense and defense. Harbin is much weaker when opponents are also playing a large number of flyers.
|Cut Down||Raven Man|
The sideboard is well geared to pivot into defense post-board, and you want to make sure you have time to play all your cards. Buying time until you can assemble the combo of Raffine and Sheoldred is your ultimate gameplan. Ao is too slow, and the quality of most of their cards is similar so Ertai is low impact. And it’s hard to attack early, so Gix is weak. Skrelv is good against all the red removal, but can’t block and is awkward in multiples, and Raven Man is very weak on defense.
|Parasitic Grasp||Raven Man|
A lot of the same logic as against RDW, however less removal from them reduces the efficacy of Skrelv, and key threats and flyers mean Ertai and Ao are important to stabilize and turn the corner.
Selesnya Toxic Aggro
|Cut Down||Raven Man|
Temporary Lockdown is very important here, and consider mulliganing aggressively to it (and the mana to cast it on time).
Cut Down is the best card against you, but the rest of the board is not geared to the mirror. As the deck picks up in popularity, this is the match-up I would look to shore up most.
Not an expected huge part of the metagame, but the most important thing is establishing a board presence and then protecting it. If Mindsplice Apparatus is key to their gameplan, or you expect Wedding Announcement out of the sideboard (along with Ossification and Restoration of Eiganjo), Loran has applications here. Swap her in for another copy of Skrelv and Dennick.
Mono-Blue / Izzet Djinn
Another matchup this sideboard is not geared against, Spell pierce is reasonable against their interaction, and Dennick is not effective against the eight creatures they play.